We have discussed the growing trend of teachers being fired or disciplined for their discussions or postings on social media. These cases raise difficult free speech issues for educators who make political, religious, or social comments as private citizens but are then held accountable by their schools. The latest such case is out of Milwaukee where teacher Travis Sarandos has been put on leave over a deeply offensive and callous tweet about the cancer prognosis of conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Sarandos reportedly said that he thought the advanced cancer prognosis was “awesome” and that he hoped Limbaugh’s death would be a painful one. It is hard to feel much sympathy for someone who has so little for others. However, there remains a question of free speech and who decides what is permissible or impermissible for teachers to express outside of their schools and employment.
I have previously written about concerns that public employees are increasingly being disciplined for actions in their private lives or views or associations outside of work. We have previously seen teachers (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here) students (here, here and here) and other public employees (here and here and here) fired for their private speech or conduct, including school employees fired for posing in magazines (here), appearing on television shows in bikinis (here), or having a prior career in the adult entertainment industry (here). This includes Halloween costume controversies or the costumes of their children.
In this case, Sarandos made despicable comments in reply to a poster who hoped Limbaugh would recover. Sarandos could not tolerate such an expression of humanity for someone he disagreed with on politics. He responded that “limbaugh absolutely should have to suffer from cancer. it’s awesome that he’s dying, and hopefully it is as quick as it is painful.”
I am again unsure what the standard is for teachers. Would he face the same discipline if he hoped for the death of Kim Jong-un? How about expressions of hate for Harvey Weinstein or other reviled figures? Schools rarely explain where the line is drawn, making these decisions fluid and subjective. The result is a chilling effect on speech since teachers never know what will cross the line with parents or school officials.
Sarandos is not the only person taking great joy in the suffering of others. They include writer Jon Tayler who said “It’s only fitting that this cancer upon the world should be stricken by it. If this kills Rush, then give him a state funeral so that every willing American can have a chance to pay their respects by kicking his corpse as hard as they can.”
As many on the blog know, I tend to be a classic free speech advocate. In such disputes, I tend to favor the right to speech over ill-defined standards of speech regulation. If schools want to regulate speech, they should offer a bright-line standard rather than former Justice Potter Stewart’s famous statement on obscenity that “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it . . .”